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Gaming the Apple Podcast charts is cheaper and easier than you think

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

John Perotti’s drone music podcast was never meant for the masses, yet on a Friday in early October, it sat near the top of Apple’s podcast charts. All it took to get it there was a $5 payment to a stranger who’d DMed Perotti days earlier.

As the manager of podcast production at WBUR, Boston’s NPR News station, Perotti receives lots of audio-related messages. But this October, he received an unusual one: a person claiming they could get any show to the top of Apple’s Podcast charts for a small fee. Perotti had read about these offers before, so he figured he’d give it a try.

His independently produced show, called WAVes, is “mostly drone music and weird comedy / storytelling,” Perotti tells The Verge. “I wouldn’t say [it’s] a pile of garbage, just nothing that would be on the charts,” he says. It had only 300 downloads when he took the stranger up on their offer.

Perotti sent $5 and a link to WAVes to the person who contacted him. A day later, his show appeared at the bottom of Apple’s Arts charts.

Then, it started to rise. It topped out at number two on the Arts chart and number 55 on the All Categories chart.

“As the day went on, it kept on climbing, climbing, climbing,” he says.

Apple’s podcast charts have existed since 2005. Like Billboard charts for pop music, they show what’s trending, suggesting that any show on the chart has buzz around it.

But unlike the Billboard charts, Apple’s podcast charts don’t rank shows by raw popularity; the charts aren’t wholly representative of the biggest shows. Apple treats them more like a hot list of what’s trending now, using metrics like new subscriptions, Apple confirmed to The Verge. The company wouldn’t go into more detail on the algorithm. A popular theory is that it’s based on a show’s subscriber rate or how quickly it’s picking up new listeners, which would explain how Perotti ended up trending.

Podcasts don’t have a major public-facing popularity metric apart from these charts, so they’ve become a way for regular listeners to get a sense of what shows might be worth hearing. It’s also a way for media outlets to evaluate their competition and justify their own existence. That’s why Apple’s charts function as an industry heavyweight, even if Apple isn’t transparent about how they’re created and the rankings can be gamed.

The charts are supposed to tell you what’s hot now

Perotti’s fraudulent success suggests it’s easy and cheap to trick the system, and a chart push could theoretically be worth millions. Podcasts primarily make money through advertisements built into a show, although revenue can also come from TV deals, like Pod Save America on HBO, and live events, like WNYC’s RadioLoveFest. The US podcast industry reached $314 million in revenue in 2017, according to a study this year from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PwC US. The firms also estimate that revenue will grow even more between now and 2020, eventually reaching $659 million. There’s serious incentive to be at the top if it’s how advertisers determine where to spend their budget, or, at the very least, if it’s how people discover new shows.

“How are you going to find the podcast that you want to advertise on? Well, let’s look at the top of the charts. Let’s see who’s getting heard,” Mike Mignano, CEO of podcasting app Anchor, tells The Verge. “So the charts actually, in a strange way, because of a lack of a data around how podcasts perform, became important tools for finding podcasts worth advertising on.”

While the charts might initially make sense as a public barometer of success, the fact that they can be gamed doesn’t give people in the industry much faith in them. They’re sometimes seen as nothing more than a vanity play. People use them to bolster their show and say it’s a “chart-topping” podcast, industry reporter Nicholas Quah tells The Verge.

In his mind, the charts solely give podcast creators an extra bragging point on their resume that they can then use to pitch TV networks or publishers. These are certainly lucrative revenue streams, so any extra bullet point would probably be appreciated.

“Chart-topping doesn’t mean what most people think it means,” he says. “It just means that you had a lot of new interactions one given week, and your podcast is sitting in the top five. There’s no reason why you should have a book deal more so than another, bigger show that’s been floating around in the top fifty to sixty range.”

The top Apple Podcast charts.
The top Apple Podcast charts.

Quah’s views aren’t universal. Apple’s charts still matter to Mignano, but he says their worth is diminishing as different listening platforms become more popular.

He says that Apple’s historical power in the space puts extra weight behind those charts, especially because lots of people rely on the Apple Podcast app to actually listen to shows.

In a study published this month, Anchor found that 52 percent of podcast listeners are listening through Apple Podcasts. But Apple hasn’t shared data on whether people are getting their recommendations through the charts. Perotti’s experience might be a good example: even when it trended for a few days, it only generated around 200 more downloads and one confusingly written review. Many of those listens were likely fraudulent: they came from Bangladesh, where the person who contacted him was based, but Perotti says some people outside of Bangladesh listened, too, according to his own analytics.

Plenty of people have tried to unravel the charts’ algorithm publicly, and Perotti’s experience suggests that some have done so privately, too. One YouTuber called Lime Link, in a video titled “How to Game the Apple Podcasts Top Charts,” dove into how one possible metric, reviews and ratings, affect chart rankings. He found that they don’t really matter, which is why shows with zero reviews can make it to the top of the charts.

What’s more important is the subscription rate, which requires someone to push a subscribe button. Perotti doesn’t know the behind-the-scenes work that went into getting his show to the top, but he guesses it was some sort of click-farm. Discover Pods has written about this possibility at length, positing that someone could use an automated script instead of human labor. A classic click-farm operation utilizes hundreds of devices and involves people clicking on a specific button to inflate subscriber rates, followers, or whatever else is being contracted. We haven’t seen a video of a podcast-oriented enterprise before, but one video from Thailand last summer showed a click-farm bust that involved 474 iPhones mounted to racks, all plugged in as workers tried to boost engagement on Chinese social network WeChat. There’s also a great Silicon Valley clip of this, which is, of course fictionalized.

I contacted Perotti’s person, who goes by Seoarif on SEOClerks, a website similar to Fiverr but for soliciting “SEO services,” to learn more about how the chart-topping business is run. I didn’t get very far. Seoarif did say “iTunes, Apple IDs, [and] devices,” are used, and the business has been in operation for two years. This person also employs a team of seven people. While we don’t know entirely how Seoarif runs the business, it could just involve the classic click-farm setup with people subscribing, unsubscribing, and pressing play on shows. For just $5!

Of course, Perotti’s contact has some competition. A search on SEOClerks yields multiple vendors who promise to get a show on the charts. Quah and other podcast industry followers have written about fraud on the charts for months. One podcast analytics company even deeply analyzed how Apple’s automatically generated recommendations work and how they can be used to spot possible fraudulent shows. The company suggests looking at the trending episodes chart to determine which shows are legitimate and to look for reviews that grow in numbers over time.

Apple monitors these operations, too, and it has safeguards in place to ensure phony shows are taken down. The company monitors its international and domestic charts and relies on a combination of humans and software to detect signs of fraud. It bans shows after they’re caught attempting fraud multiple times, Apple confirmed to The Verge. The company also acknowledged its efforts to stop chart manipulation during a developer’s conference in June, but it hasn’t elaborated publicly since.

Apple will ban bad actors

In any advertising-supported business, analytics are important. But podcast analytics are notoriously limited. As late as this year, many shows only had their download numbers to go off of, and even now, that’s the main metric advertisers ask for when considering ad placement.

Apple is currently piloting its own platform to give creators more insight into where their listeners are coming from and how long they listen to a show. Spotify also offers some analytics around listener demographics.

But these analytics are coming late to the podcast world. Many companies have figured out workarounds to vague data, both to measure success and to find shows worth pursuing for advertisements.

Some media buying agencies and even smaller businesses rely on third-party software, like Adswizz, to find shows with specific listener demographics, which allows them to avoid looking at podcast charts or hunting for shows entirely. Bigger agencies often have contacts at the larger networks, too. Advertisers can define who they want to target through this third-party software, even with niche audiences, to find the shows that cater to that demographic. Essentially, advertisers don’t need to consult the temperamental charts because they’ve developed their own data to measure success.

Kurt Kaufer, a partner at Ad Results Media, which purchases podcast ads for clients, tells The Verge that the company maintains its own database of information, like whether shows got people to buy a product and what the agency paid for ad placement. Some classic podcast-advertised brands, like MeUndies, use a vanity URL for each host read and then monitor that success through Google Analytics, the company told The Verge. Kaufer’s agency also uses similar tactics with vanity URLs, promo codes, or surveys asking how people ended up on a buying page.

Advertisers can measure success on their own

The podcast industry is at a turning point. Formal networks are being created, exclusive podcast deals are being inked, and revenue is flooding the space. Podcasting isn’t DIY anymore, and Apple’s podcast charts demonstrate that. Most of the trending shows come from big networks like NPR or The New York Times. When a small upstart shows up on the charts, seemingly out of nowhere, people presume it’s fraudulent.

As a result of this strengthening industry, smaller shows struggle to get attention from advertisers, Quah says.

“It feels like everything is consolidating and formalizing, so I can see the incentive for a smaller show that kind of wants to have a little bit of a boost in visibility to [pay to top the charts], which in and of itself is not inherently bad, but taken together with what we know about the charts and what the charts represent, it’s a complicated situation,” he says.

The podcast charts still mean something, especially to smaller shows that use it to prove themselves. But it seems that pretty soon — maybe even now — they won’t matter much at all.